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Met provides a dark, mostly compelling update to “Lucia”

Nadine Sierra in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Cheers greeted Simon Stone and his creative team Saturday night as they walked onstage to take bows after the debut performance of his updated staging of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera. A few people started booing, but they were quickly drowned out by the rest of the audience which had long been on its feet. The new production has its faults, but it is undeniably compelling, and diehard traditionalists will have to save their brickbats for another day. 

Donizetti was at the height of his powers when he composed Lucia in just six weeks in 1853. He and librettist Salvadore Cammarano whittled down Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, into a taut conflict between the three main protagonists: the innocent Lucia; her brother Enrico; and the man she loves and her brother’s nemesis, Edgardo. Improbably, Scott based his novel on a true story of a young girl forced into a marriage, who did indeed stab her husband, although not fatally, on their wedding night. 

Stone has reset the action from 17th-century Scotland to America’s Rust Belt in the present day,exploring the contemporary resonance of the opera’s themes of violence, misogyny and economic decline. Lucia is a pawn in her brother Enrico’s plan to claw his way out of debt by marrying her off to the well-off Edgardo. Enrico is assisted in these efforts by the benevolent, if misguided efforts of Raimondo, the local parish priest. 

An atmosphere of desperation prevails in the seedy side of town where alcohol and drugs numb the pain of existence. The going concerns are the pawn shop, liquor store and pharmacy. There’s no doubt most people who live there, not only carry a handgun, but are willing to use it, although knives were just as lethal.

Arturo uses social media to help undermine Lucia’s trust in Edgardo. The photos and chat displayed above the set promoted surprising laughter from the audience opening night. Perhaps, it just rang too true.

Set designer Lizzie Clachan, who was making her Met debut along with Stone and most of the team, created a theme-park version of a small town. Much of it is too brightly garish and polished to too high a sheen to truly depict the decaying blight of failed factory town. The exceptions are the ramshackle drive-in theater and Enrico and Lucia’s family home, a century old frame house with its rooms covered in cheap wood panelling. Battered cars and trucks from the 1970’s and ’80s add to the forlorn atmosphere. 

The entire set is situated on the Met’s revolving stage. The fast-paced scene changes, particularly in the first act, at times were dizzying and disorienting. For the Mad Scene, almost every edifice is crowded onto the center of the stage. As it rotates, there is the sense of being on a merry-go-round in an amusement park.

Javier Camarena as Edgardo and Nadine Sierra in the Met’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo: Marty Sohl

The only static scene is when Lucia and Alisa wait for Edgardo in front of a giant tank, presumably part of a long-closed factory. A sign warning of deep water telegraphs Lucia’s fate, as she sings of the ghost of a girl who was stabbed by a jealous lover. Oddly, the young woman who materializes before her bore little mark of the grave. 

Clachan’s best effort is the outdoor wedding reception with its giant candy cane arch of white, pink and red flowers. Arturo and Lucia’s bridesmaids are costumed in orange-sherbet hues. The women are in party dresses that are glitzy and purposely tacky, while the men are mostly in dark suits. James Farncombe’s subtle lighting lends a murky, despondent atmosphere to the party. The scene ends with would-be comic relief with a catfight and a woman’s head nose deep in the wedding cake. 

The over-busy production, however, is made even more so by Luke Halls’ video projections. It’s hard not to be visually ensnared  by the distractingly  oversized faces of Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Lon Chaney in the 1947 film, My Favorite Brunette, at the drive-in, instead of focusing on the life-sized Lucia and Edgardo singing of their mutual love and devotion. 

A film crew is also on hand to chronicle Lucia’s daily life. Projected above the set, the videos were distracting. Perhaps higher up in the house, there was a sense of unity between film and stage action, but there wasn’t any from a seat in the orchestra. The surtitles were displayed above the physical set, otherwise it would have been impossible to take it all in, as at the Met they are viewed on tiny screens at seat level. 

A few gallons of fake blood must have been tossed on Arturo’s corpse, Lucia’s wedding dress and the half dozen of so spectral figures that appear during the Mad Scene. The video closeups of Nadine Sierra as Lucia, appearing wildly deranged and her face streaked with blood, during the orchestral interlude before the final scene added an incongruous comic element and an obtrusive touch of reality at just the wrong moment. Filmed in real time, cast and crew congratulated Sierra on her Mad Scene as they passed by her. What was the point?

Nadine Sierra and Artur Ruciński as Enrico in the Met’s Lucia di Lamermoor. Photo: Marty Sohl

The cast was perfectly at ease with the staging, perhaps none more so than Javier Camarena as Edgardo. Everyday clothes suited this regular-guy Edgardo and Camarena gave a particularly relaxed, natural performance, singing with golden tone and the utmost expression. This was Camarena at his best.

Sierra was singing Lucia at the Met for the first time and she triumphed in the role. She provided the physical glamour in the production — chic and lithe with flowing long hair — and there was plenty of vocal allure too. The freedom and abandon in Sierra’s singing perfectly captured the twists of fate that sent Lucia into her downward mental spiral. The Mad Scene was captivating, with Sierra’s voice blending perfectly with the eerie sounds of the glass harmonica.

Artur Ruciński was dashing, desperate, and despicable as Enrico, and in total command of the stage both vocally and dramatically. Ruciński’s Enrico seemed to exist on a more timeless plain than the other characters, one that would have been equally at ease in a Scottish palace as a dilapidated house in small-town America. The voice was elegant and suave, produced with an ease that matched the Polish baritone’s athletic demeanor. 

The imposing, understated Raimondo of Matthew Rose, dressed in black with a clerical collar, dominated the final scenes of the opera. Eric Ferring’s fine, gleaming tenor made an impact, but his Ken-Doll Arturo got lost in all of the stage business. In contrast, Deborah Nansteel’s Alisa was fun loving and full of life, never overshadowed vocally or dramatically by the principals.

Riccardo Frizza led a performance of unflagging energy and excitement. With his extraordinary attention to balances, Sierra could basically whisper a phrase and still be heard above a soft sheen of orchestral sound. The Met chorus weaved in and out of the labyrinth set with ease and indulged in the wedding festivities with abandon, all the while singing wonderfully.

This was a production that people wanted to talk about, even with strangers. At intermission a man asked me what I thought. I said that it worked for me, but that the videos were distracting. He responded that he was a multi-media enthusiastic, so that element fascinated him, quickly adding that the entire concept would resonate with his daughter far more than a traditional staging. Undoubtedly, that’s exactly the response for which the Met was hoping.

Lucia di Lammermoor continues through May 21.  metopera.org

Photo: Marty Sohl

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